The iPhone has been dubbed an equalizer for independent game developers, since the App Store — in theory — gives them access to millions of potential players, without forcing them to partner up with a big publisher. But as various reports have shown, games from publishing giants like EA and Gameloft (EPA: GFT) dominate the App Store in terms of sales and exposure, with a large percentage of indie developers left stuck with great games that they’re unable to monetize.
That’s where startups like Playhaven hope to come in. Instead of creating games, they’re trying to create communities and exposure for the game developers. The goal is to help them sell more games — and eventually — pay for the assistance. Playhaven, for example, creates mini “fan sites” where players can create profiles, post their scores, and share strategies about specific games. Officially launched in June 2009, Playhaven says over 130 developers have “claimed” the game communities that it set up for them.
“The App Store is like a black box,” says Playhaven CEO Raymond Lau (pictured). “Aside from regional sales stats, developers have no way of really knowing who their players are. They can’t even respond to [negative or positive] reviews.” Once they “claim” ownership of the microsites that Playhaven has set up, game developers can communicate with their fan bases — providing updates about new versions of their games or glitches, for example — and also cross-promote through other social networks.
The startup helped developer Bryan Mitchell grow the Facebook community for his puzzle game, Geared (iTunes link). Geared had around 100 fans when he first created the Facebook page; that grew to over 7,300 fans within three weeks of interacting with (and claiming) the corresponding community on Playhaven. “Geared was one of the top-selling games in the App Store in August and September, and Bryan had plans for the sequel from the start,” Lau said. “But he had no way of interacting with players to get a read for what they’d want.”
Playhaven’s “app within an app” setup means that developers can plug links to their communities right into their games, with no SDK or other programming needed. The service is free for now; Lau says the company is focused on “building the developer network — not monetization,” but the plan is to eventually offer premium services and ads.
On the premium end, Playhaven could offer developers advanced analytics about their game communities (i.e. zip codes, time zones they play in, percentage of in-app purchases vs. subscription players on a daily basis), as well as consulting. “If a developer with a hit iPhone game wants to advertise a similar game on the Wii or PlayStation Network, we could help them do that, because we have all the user data,” Lau said. Founded in 2008 by Lau, Erik Yao, Kurtiss Hare, and Stephen Altamirano, Playhaven is backed by an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Tandem Entrepreneurs and startup incubator Launchbox Digital.